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Cool reception for Halifax County budget

SoVaNow.com / March 21, 2019


A Halifax County budget that raises taxes and cuts school funding got little love from speakers at a public hearing Monday night to gather citizen input on the proposed $95.6 million package.

Some who spoke before the Halifax County Board of Supervisors lamented the proposed 2-cent hike in the county’s real estate tax rate of 48 cents, while others spoke out against plans to cut the current level of county school funding by $425,077. That cut would leave the School Board more than a million dollars short of its plans to give raises to teachers and support staff.

Roy Mitchell, in his comments, acknowledged that “the board struggles to find funding to satisfy everybody. I understand that.”

But he questioned some spending priorities, singling out the amount set aside for the IDA — $425,088 in the draft budget — and said, “I haven’t seen any return on that money.”

Mitchell also questioned whether supervisors had done enough to go through each line of the budget and identify and cut out unneeded spending.

He expressed a mix of opinions on taxes, warning supervisors that “if you approve any tax increase” in the budget, “you’re going to kill any chance of [passing] the sales tax,” a reference to the referendum expected this fall on a 1-cent local sales tax to finance an upgrade to the high school.

However, Mitchell added a caveat: “I’m never for a tax increase,” but if taxes must be raised, the revenue should go towards better pay for school employees. “If we don’t take care of our teachers, we’re done.”

Larry Clark, former principal of Halifax County High School and later deputy school superintendent, addressed one of the biggest challenges of the school budget, which comprises almost two-thirds of the overall county budget. The school division is receiving more than a million dollars from the state to fund salary hikes for teachers, but that money is offset by a million-dollar loss in basic state aid tied to declining student enrollment.

The enrollment loss is projected to be 136 students. The supervisors’ budget and finance committee, chaired by ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis, recommended lowering the share of county funding in tandem with the drop in state aid. In the draft budget, local support for the schools falls from $14.25 million to $13.83 million.

“Your reducing [the] local effort while at the same time state funding decreases punishes the school division twice,” said Clark.

If the enrollment loss were concentrated all at one school, Clark said, it might be possible to wring more savings out of the budget by eliminating the jobs of teachers and other personnel there. (The school budget calls for seven teaching position cuts.) But with nine schools in the county, and with students spread across 13 grade levels, the expected outcome is that each school will see small, gradual declines in their student populations.

“As a former principal of HCHS, I can assure you that losing [a small number of] students spread over grades 9-12 would have no effect on operational costs, including personnel associated with the school,” Clark said.

“What it really comes down to is what kind of a community do we want? Do we really want our county to be perceived as being too poor to adequately fund its schools?”

Cheryl Watts agreed that “education should be our primary focus. Education takes up most of our money, but that’s the way it should be.”

But Watts expressed skepticism toward the idea of building a new high school, saying “I’m one for renovating or building to [the standard] needed.”

At the age of 72, Watts also urged supervisors to keep in mind the plight of senior citizens and others who can’t afford a tax increase. “I know what it’s like to be on the lower end of the income scale,” she said.

“A lot of seniors are at an even situation” on fixed incomes.

Weldon Anderson spoke on the economic hardships of county farmers, who he said are being whipsawed by falling crop prices and consolidation of farming in fewer and fewer hands.

“Demand is not going up. Demand is going down,” said Anderson. He also said the value of farmland is going down, falling below a $1,000 an acre in the Volens area, and around $700 an acre for some tobacco tract. “The solar panel people and the rich man, I’m sure they’re happy to take my farm at a bottom low price.

“The only thing we’re going to have left is solar panels and clear-cut land,” he added.

David Shapard of Halifax spoke in a similar vein, wondering whether citizens are aware that the board is considering a 2-cent tax hike, part of “the real disappointment going on in this county.

“I would ask what you’re doing in the county and ask whether you’re moving it forward or moving it backward,” said Shapard.

Board members did receive some praise: Jay Stephens, executive director of the local library system, thanked supervisors for maintaining current funding in the budget for the two library branches in Halifax and South Boston.

Stephens pointed out, however, that the Halifax library needs some modest building improvements.

Board Chairman Dennis Witt interjected a note of praise for Stephens and the library board, citing their work to bring in speakers and authors and offer special programs for local youth: “It’s great stuff,” he said.

Detra Carr, in a nod to ongoing discussions between supervisors and school trustees on budgetary matters, chided members of the board for “getting some information at the 11 o’clock hour” on the needs of the school division. “There’s work to be done,” he said.

“I know I’m not planning on going anywhere. This is my home and I’m staying here. But we have to work together,” said Carr.

The meeting began with Witt taking note of the proposed 2-cent real estate tax hike, which largely would be used to pay for some big-ticket items — including a new radio system for county emergency services, heavy trucks for the public works department, an expansion of the South Boston fire station, and pay raises of 4 or 5 percent for county employees, with those making less than $34,000 annually get the higher raise. But Witt left open the possibility that the tax plans could change: the 2-cent increase “certainly hasn’t been established yet.”

The next step in the budget process is another meeting of the board’s budget and finance panel, followed by the regular monthly meeting of the full board on April 1, when members could vote to adopt or redo the package.



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Comments

I could not make the meeting as I had to try an get farm work done before the rain. I emailed all BOS members and talked to my rep personally. NO new taxes. Did you notice that the only ones that want the money are the current or past employees of the government (school system etc) I like Mr. Clark, but I disagree with him on this. WE need to cut, cut, cut! Most people I know are not going to vote in favor of the sales tax hike and everyone that does not work for the county that I know does not want a tax increase. It is time for the BOS to find ways to cut. If I could be made dictator of the county for 30 days I could fix the budget!

Comments

Dictactor? You'd like that wouldn't you? You might could fix the budget, but you'd have dilapidated buildings, no teachers, no workforce, and especially no young families in this county. I agree with conservative spending, but it takes money to maintain and improve county & school buildings and keep good employees. You think cut, cut, cut is the answer, but have you ever been in any other job sector other than farming?

Comments

the county is already rode hard and put away wet. No budgets to maintain only to rebuild new. Cut the IDA and mothball for two years while we get teacher pay at or above averages. what benefit will a new superschool have if we lack qualified teachers? BTW how many long term subs do we now have in courses they are unqualified to issue grades for?? hmmmmmm. Cut a few top redundant positions at the school admin- not the workers I am referring to 100k plus a year positions.


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